Nfld. & Labrador

Relief and unease as supplies begin flowing to Coast of Bays region

Route 360, which thousands of people on Newfoundland’s south coast rely on for travel and supplies, opened for the first time in five days on Tuesday after massive forest fires forced the government to close it. The reopening came with some relief as stranded travellers and critical supplies began flowing to the Coast of Bays communities.

Dwindling supplies, smoke creating unease

A sign says "LIMITS FOR CUSTOMERS" with purchase limits for produce, milk and other goods.
As supplies began dwindling, the Clover Farms store in St. Alban's was forced to implement customer purchase limits. (Darrell Roberts/CBC)

Signs of the massive forest fires are few and far between on most of the drive down the Bay d'Espoir Highway into the Coast of Bays region.

There are some search and rescue vehicles, some firefighting vehicles, and about 45 minutes into the two-hour drive, a massive sections of burnt trees and charred vegetation can be seen.

For weeks now, two raging forest fires have forced the on-again, off-again closure of Route 360, the main road in and out of the area and a vital link to the rest of Newfoundland for the thousands of people living on this part of the south coast.

Tuesday night was the first time in five days travellers and trucks carrying supplies like food have been able to drive the road, and the evidence of the fires is most noticeable on the west side of the highway, where drivers can see where the fire had clearly jumped across the road.

The smell of smoke was strong, with some sections of burnt-out forest still smoking.

The sense of relief may have been stronger.

"Oh, I'm so excited. I can't wait. Can't hardly talk because I'm too excited," Tina Benoit told Radio-Canada.

She and her husband are two of the hundreds who have been stranded by the ongoing road closures — travellers who have been lining up near the Exploits River Motel at the entrance to the Bay d'Espoir highway for days, hoping the road will reopen.

Benoit had traveled to Gander for an appointment on Thursday and ended up stuck, unable to return home to her 13-year-old son on the south coast for five days.

As traffic flowed on both sides of Route 360 Tuesday afternoon, provincial forestry officials and search and rescue volunteers warned people not to stop on the highway or try to access their cabins.

A long five days

The relief is just as prominent at the other end of the road. In St. Alban's, one of dozens of communities cut off from the critical supply route, Mayor Connie Willcott said it's been a long five days. 

"With each passing day the anxiety was definitely growing," she said. 

Stores have been running out of supplies, and gas was only available for emergency services. 

"All of those things were making us very worried," she said.

A person with blonde hair and glasses wearing a grey sweater.
St. Alban's Deputy Mayor Connie Willcott says the reopening of Route 360 is a huge relief for residents. (Darrell Roberts/CBC)

Willcott said residents worried about missing medical appointments and what would happen in a medical emergency.

And even though the road has reopened for now, Willcott said the town isn't letting its guard down.

"This can change at any given moment," she said. "The winds are unpredictable, or, I guess, changing at any given time. So we're just holding tight and staying here and being here for our residents." 

The provincial government had been preparing to bring supplies to the community by helicopter, and Willcott said that plan is still in place if the road closes again. She said the town's emergency centre is still actively meeting.

'Keep your fingers crossed'

Jennifer Collier, manager of St. Alban's Clover Farms, said the store hadn't received any supplies for a week — though she was hopeful that would soon change. 

Shelves normally filled with produce, breads and meat were empty on Tuesday night. The store was also running low on baby products and pet food. 

"Our produce, our fresh meat, our milk, bread, everything like that is really, extremely low," she said. "We really need freight."

A person stands in front of an empty grocery store shelf.
St. Alban's Clover Farm manager Jennifer Collier says customers have been increasingly anxious as the closure continued. (Darrell Roberts/CBC)

Collier said the store hadn't been prepared for the sudden closure of its supply route, and had been forced to put purchase limits on some goods in order to curb panic buying. She said the isolation created an uneasy feeling in the community.

"They've been a little bit anxious, panicked a little bit, hey? Because we don't know when the highway was going to reopen."

A Central Dairy supply truck had brought more milk on Tuesday afternoon, and Collier said a refrigerated truck with some supplies — though not a full order — was en route on Tuesday night. She was hopeful supplies would be delivered to the store early Wednesday morning. 

Though the road reopened on Tuesday, Collier said residents still feel anxious about what could happen next.

"We've been told that could change at any time. So we're isolated, we have no way to get any food in, so it was a little bit of panic." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darrell Roberts is a reporter for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.

With files from Katie Breen and Héloïse Rodriguez-Qizilbash

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